1989. David Bowie’s mid-life crisis? Perhaps. A radical attempt to fight creative torpidity and to re-connect with lost artistic integrity? Absolutely. Vilified and praised in equal measure at the time, Tin Machine divided opinion with comparative intensity. You either felt relieved that David had seen the light and left behind the awful 80’s excesses and below-par mainstream pop of the previous few years: here was bold, challenging music presented in his/their own terms, no compromises. Bowie the artist was back. Or it was lacklustre garage rock from four men old enough to know better.  Whatever your opinions of the actual music on the two albums that Tin Machine produced, it was an essential exercise. As it happens, if you can put any pre-conceived notions that “Tin Machine is crap” to bed, you will find some of Bowie’s best work- a continuation of the outré experimentation the late 70s, helped in no small way by the ingenious guitar of Reeves Gabrels.

By the end of 1987, David Bowie was up creative creak without a paddle. However, in the spring of that  year he was outwardly effervescent, enthusing to journalists about the up-coming “Glass Spider” tour and the new “Never Let Me Down” album. It’s interesting that in these interviews (particularly the one below) he saw both projects as a ‘return to form’ of sorts, bringing in harder guitar from Peter Frampton, social conscience in the lyrics and an (overly) ambitious live experience, akin to the “Diamond Dogs” spectacle from 13 years before.

Interview, 1987:

The problem was that while the intentions were sincere, the execution was, well, a bit of a mess. The album did have some good songs (and some not so good ones) but suffered from complacent production values and the feeling of just trying a bit too hard and missing the target completely. The tour was overblown and lacking in focus- he would later admit there were too many ideas happening concurrently, with dance routines jousting for position with guitar solos and a rather gaudy red suit. Much of this was lost in the stadiums that the giant spider visited and is better appreciated on the VHS/DVD record. The best that can be said for this period is that it shows a desire to re-connect with rock n’ roll and theatricality that he had done so well once upon a time. It also pre-empted the massive visual extravaganzas that toured the world a couple of years later- Madonna, the Stones  and U2 were watching.

If one were being callous, you could argue that David Bowie is only ever as good as his collaborators at any point in his career- whether it be Mick Ronson, Brian Eno, Nile Rodgers, Tony Visconti. What he needed was a new source of inspiration. At a wrap party on the Glass Spider tour, David received a demo tape from a member of his press staff for the North American dates. Her name was Sarah Gabrels, her husband; Reeves. So it was in early 1988 that the seeds of this new direction were sown. The pair started working together and the first fruits of this union was a re-interpretation of the “Lodger” track “Look Back In Anger”. This was premiered in a charity event called “Intruders At The Palace” at the Dominium Theatre, London in July 1988 showcasing the incredible La La La Human Steps dance troupe, featuring Louise Lecavilier. After failing to secure their services for the Glass Spider, she would later become an integral part of the 1990 “Sound + Vision” tour (and the accompanying “Fame’90” video).

“Intruders At The Palace” concert. London, July 1988:

So, with renewed vigour and intention Bowie had a singular vision of creating a project that fed artistic needs rather than the bank balance. Despite the wall-of-sound guitars, the techno backing of “….Anger” wasn’t quite the ticket.  In a search for the perfect rhythm section to match Gabrel’s free-form style, a moment of revelation came in a brief phone call David made to his incumbent accomplice one night – “Just put on Lust For Life” – click. He was referring to the Brothers Sales- Hunt and Tony, players from the Iggy Pop album Bowie had produced some 11 years before. The picture was complete. After a few rehearsals and tentative recordings it emerged that this was developing into a true band situation, rather than the next David Bowie record. Ergo, with profits shared equally, no salaries and expenses paid for by each member, Tin Machine was launched on to a bemused public in May, 1989. The first gig was a clandestine affair at a small club in Nassau, Bahamas. Some aghast at seeing a bearded variant version of a rock superstar in such surroundings. Can it be?? Surely not! At the International Rock Awards in the U.S. just before the album release, their performance caused consternation among the corporate crowd, including disapproval from Tina Turner’s mother!

The eponymous album appeared on EMI Records on 22nd May. Taking sonic influence from then-current favourites the Pixies, it is  brutal and uncompromising, especially in the context of late ’80s sophistication from fellow contemporaries. Lyrics highlighting vile neo-Nazism in “Under The God” and titles such as “Crack City” give the listener an idea that this is no “Let’s Dance”, but there are also love songs – “Amazing” and “Prisoner Of Love”. The latter displaying the searing chords structures that are trademark Bowie, an “Absolute Beginners” in a different musical context. The first tour was comparatively brief and resolutely small-scale. The band decked out in sober dark suits and a hirsute Bowie, looking like a smarter version of the Baal character he once played, there were no hits, no encores, no theatrics of any kind. Just David as part of a band. That That pleased some, angered others.

Rehearsal and interview. Manhattan, New York, 1989:

The following year David did something equally unexpected. In January he announced to the world’s press a large scale solo tour of his Greatest Hits and furthermore that it would the last time EVER that they would be played. In the pre-internet era, a phone-line was set up for fans to phone in their preferred set-list, with Bowie picking the highest votes from each world territory. (The NME in the UK starting their own ‘Just Say Gnome’ campaign, to get The Laughing Gnome into the set. A treat that was vetoed when the source of all the votes was discovered by the artist). A purging of the soul after this recent creative epiphany perhaps. As the ensuing years proved, this statement could constitute fraud as the old favourites crept into his set towards the end of the 90s. With stunning visuals from La La La Human Steps but with a very minimal approach, both sonically and visually compared to the previous solo affair, the result was a perfunctory style of execution- the musical backing providing adequate but uninspiring delivery, despite the fretwork of Adrian Below, last seen as part of the 1978 ‘Stage’ tour and King Crimson. There were much more interesting renditions of these songs to emerge later in the decade and into the 2000s.

Tin Machine, Part II. Having already recorded most of the next album at the end of ’89, the band reconvened in early ’91 to finish off the second chapter. Having cut the strings from EMI, the new record would appear on a small label called Victory, distributed by London Records. As such it is now the only the part of the Bowie canon that is currently out-of-print, and that is a real shame considering that most of the material here is superior to the debut release. Growing musically, the results are a more three-dimensional sound. A little more polished, but still retaining some underlying ferocity. Released 2nd September 1991, it even provided the band with their only UK Hit – “You Belong In Rock n’ Roll” (peaking at No. 33). This track in particular being a lot more radio and TV friendly, with appearances on Top Of The Pops and even Wogan. (Gabrels managing to get away with playing with a Vibrator, while a TOTP ban of the sex toy resulted in a bread roll substitution). David’s nature was somewhat contrary in most interviews from this period; this rendezvous with good old Tel is one of the milder examples. Get ready to squirm. Hello Ron!

“You Belong In Rock n’ Roll”, Wogan, 1991:

Not the best part of the album by any means (and you can safely skip “Sorry” too), highlights would be “Goodbye Mr. Ed”, “Shopping For Girls” and the sheer snappy-ness of the lead track “Baby Universal”. Had this track been released without the band moniker I’m sure it would have been praised as a return to form, but by ’91 the anti-band vibe was so strong that Bowie had taken to wearing “Fuck You I’m in Tin Machine” T-Shirt on stage. Not that many people cared. The sartorial style had changed considerably, David was now sickeningly suntanned, clean shaven and the whole band ditching the dark suits in favour of clashing colours (or bare-chested in the case of David and Hunt). David picked up the saxophone for the first time in years.

I’ve posted a full length concert here from the end of the tour in Japan, February 1992. For this tour, David declared that “We have no setlist whatsoever. We have a complete list of all our songs on the floor of the stage and we yell it out as we feel it. If you catch us on a bad night, it can be one of the most disastrous shows you’ve ever seen. But on a good night – and fortunately with this band most nights have been good nights – it really happens”. I think the version of Shopping For Girls” here is extraordinary (1:18:42)

Tin Machine – Live in Tokyo, Japan, 6th February 1992:

The notion of a simultaneous solo and band career was a possibility for a while and a third album was planned, but two months later Bowie would perform at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, marry his new-found love Iman and start work on the second Nile Rodgers collaboration “Black Tie White Noise”- a very different phase had begun. Problems had arisen with “certain members and hard drugs” on the tour which the reformed Bowie could not abide. However, Reeves Gabrels stayed in the picture for a full 11 years, a much longer time than any other Bowie associate (excluding Tony Visconti). The 90’s turned out much better artistically than the previous decade, with “1. Outside”, “Earthling” and “…hours” all benefitting from the brilliance and innovation of Gabrels. As with all of these compadres, it is very much a case of ‘services rendered’ when the artist decides to move on. I will always love David Bowie as an artist but I think it’s a shame that the musical bravery on display throughout this period diluted into safer territory with subsequent albums. I don’t really get the unanimous heap of praise that has fallen on “The Next Day”, in comparison to the negativity that surrounded a group called Tin Machine (and for that matter the derision generated by the ‘Drum n’ Bass Uncle’ vibes around the time of “Earthling”- which I would also defend heartily). It seems that the world and the artist themselves are content with the brand Bowie and everything is Hunky Dory. A little too safe in my opinion. Come on David, surprise us once again.